A lot of distinctly unsavory characters have made it into the upper echelons of Venezuelan politics over the past decade or so. To understand why, you need only consider the uniquely murky opportunities presented by the country’s current state of chaos: the wholesale looting of oil revenues; the deep, almost carnal relationship with the dictatorship in Havana; the long-standing ties with Colombian guerrillas, and the more recent links to drug cartels; and an unlikely alliance with Tehran. You’d probably think that no single regime figure could possibly be linked to all of these phenomena. But you’d be wrong.
Introducing Tareck El Aissami, the newly appointed vice president who single-handedly brings together every alarming ingredient of modern-day Venezuela. In the course of his 42 years this ambitious Socialist Party functionary of Lebanese-Syrian extraction has managed to accumulate more power more quickly than any of his rivals, in the process positioning himself as the likely successor to hapless President Nicolás Maduro. And now he has attained a new watershed in his career: Yesterday the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on El Aissami and one of his business partners, accusing them of direct involvement in drug trafficking. (El Aissami responded by denouncing the Americans’ “miserable provocations,” declaring in a tweet that “truth is invincible and we will see this vile aggression dispelled.”
Under Venezuela’s quirky constitution, the presidential term is six years. If the president leaves office in the first four years, new elections are triggered within 30 days, but in the final two years, the vice president serves out the term. Tellingly, Maduro appointed El Aissami on Jan. 4, less than a week before the fourth year of his term elapsed. Maduro realized that in his last two years, he would become expendable from the point of view of dissatisfied chavistas horrified at the way he has squandered Chávez’s legacy. To keep power, he needed a vice president who his opponents — both inside and outside the government — feared more than they fear him.
El Aissami was perfect. Endowed with smarts, political chops and social-media savvy that Maduro could only dream of, El Aissami is every democrat’s worst nightmare: the guy who could stabilize authoritarianism for the long run.
As governor of Aragua state, about an hour west of Caracas, El Aissami showed considerable flair for enriching himself, signing lucrative deals with foreign companies and taking over a professional baseball team. He even made headlines by getting himself signed up as a player for Aragua’s soccer team, Aragua F.C., as an unlikely 40-year-old among athletes two decades his junior. El Aissami is reported to have set up a sprawling array of front companies to funnel the proceeds of various business deals to himself in difficult-to-document ways.
He is believed to have used a frontman, Samark López, to buy off a company that was once Venezuela’s leading newspaper publisher, the Grupo Ultimas Noticias, whose stridently anti-government editorial line changed abruptly upon being sold in 2013 to investors whose identities were never disclosed. In Aragua, when he was governor, he used a similar strategy to silence a dissident TV broadcaster.
But it’s his alleged entanglements with the drug trade that have drawn the most attention. Just yesterday, the U.S. government announced sanctions on El Aissami and López, alleging that the two have set up a sprawling system of offshore companies to hide the proceeds from drugs trafficking. After a multiyear investigation that uncovered and froze assets held by a slew of El Aissami-associated companies, while detailing his role in narcotics trafficking, the Treasury Department has reached an unambiguous conclusion. Its press statement describes the vice president as a “prominent Venezuelan drug trafficker.”
Remarkably, that isn’t the darkest accusation that’s been leveled against him. Those stem from his 2008-2012 stint as Hugo Chávez’s interior minister, a powerful post with control over the security services. The time frame overlaps with the infamous weekly Iran Air flight that covered an odd Tehran-Damascus-Caracas route once a week, using a huge, aging Boeing 747. The flight remained shrouded in mystery for years. Tickets were not on sale to the public. All cargo coming on and off was handled with utmost secrecy by Venezuelan security personnel. And bizarre stories abounded over what and who exactly was being ferried among these capitals.
El Aissami is a member of Venezuela’s sizable Druze community. His father is Syrian, his mother Lebanese. He grew up speaking Arabic in Venezuela’s Andean mountains. His family background meant that he was immersed in radical politics from an early age. His father is widely reported to have been a member of the Syrian Ba’ath Party (notorious today as the political vehicle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). Yet his son’s engagement with Mideast politics appears to have taken him in a different direction. Recent reports claim that, as interior minister, he illegally gave Venezuelan passports to members of Middle Eastern radical groups to allow them to travel with relatively little scrutiny. Much remains shrouded in mystery about this period, but intelligence agencies around the globe have closely tracked Tareck El Aissami’s Middle Eastern web.
But it wasn’t his Middle Eastern connections that propelled him to the upper reaches of the government in Caracas. It was his closeness to Cuba and the Castro regime, and to their most powerful Venezuelan agent, one Nicolás Maduro. Struggling to retain his hold on power amid the worst economic crisis the country has faced since the 19th century, President Maduro turned to the one ally the Cubans could trust completely, and whom his opponents feared and loathed even more than him.
It’s important to remember that Venezuela, which boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, has considerable strategic significance to its region and beyond. If a man with El Aissami’s extraordinary background had been made second in command of the country at any other time in the last 40 years, Washington would have gone straight into crisis mode.
But El Aissami and Maduro had the good sense to make their move the same month that Donald Trump became president. That bought El Aissami some cover. Little by little, though, the problem that he represents is sure to come into sharper focus.